Snow blindness is a real and often forgotten threat

By James Crowell
January 25, 2011

Snow often creates scenes fit for a postcard during the winter months, but it has a hidden and relatively unknown danger.  When sunlight bounces off of the snow, it is often reflected into your eyes which poses an extremely harmful winter hazard.

According to a New York Times article, spending a day in the snow is a lot worse than a day at the beach.  At least for your eyes.  Harmful ultraviolet rays are directed into your eyes due to the reflective properties of snow.  Ultraviolet light exposure also may heighten the risk of macular degeneration.

“I have never heard of this phenomenon,” Tara Melfe, junior elementary and special education major, said.  “But it makes sense that snow reflects sunlight.  It generally seems brighter outside when there is snow on the ground.”

Melfe said she avoids being outside if she can help it during the winter months.

Susan Fitzgerald, registered nurse and director of health services at Cabrini College, said that the most effective way to protect oneself from the sun during the winter is to limit exposure to the outside.  When traveling outside, it is best to wear sunglasses that protect against snow-reflected UVA and UVB rays.

The difference between Ultraviolet A and Ultraviolet B (known as UVA and UVB) rays is explained on a University Health Services website for UC Berkeley.  UVA rays have longer wavelengths and are recognized as a deep-penetrating radiation. Long-term exposure can damage skin’s connective tissues, which may cause skin cancer.  UVB rays have shorter wavelengths and account for what us as humans call sunburns. Moreover, UVB rays are blocked by window glass, while UVA rays are not.

Fitzgerald said that it is best to be extra cautious when spending extended periods outside in the snow, such as when snowboarders and skiers venture out to partake in winter recreation.  Wearing many layers of clothing and snow goggles provides much needed protection from the harsh elements and especially the UV rays reflected from the snow into the eyes.

Alicia Gould, freshman early childhood education major, said that she also has never heard of the high amount of sunlight being reflected into one’s eyes, but did comment that she does squint a lot more during the winter time then during the summer.

According to a piece of literature handed out by Fitzgerald, snow blindness, which is a form of keratitis, happens when ultraviolet (UV) light rays from the sun damages a part of the human eye called the cornea.  Snow blindness is particular dangerous in winter conditions, specifically at high altitudes, although it can affect people anywhere there is snow on the ground.  Snow can reflect up to 85 percent of ultraviolet light given off by the sun.  So when you look at the sun reflected off of the snow, it is as if you are looking into the sun directly.

Mary Woolbeert, graduate student preparing for her masters in education, said that she knows many friends who wear sunglasses during the winter and do so to protect

against the extra sunlight reflected off of the snow coverage on the ground.  Woolbeert also said that because she has lived farther north than Philadelphia, she has indeed noticed that sunlight does reflect more off of the snow and how it is brighter during the winter then the rest of the year.

Ben McGinnis, freshman criminal justice major, said he has not heard of snow blindness, but he does wear sunglasses during the winter as well as the summer.

Fitzgerald also said that applying a sunscreen of at least 15 SPF to the body once each day for going out into the world is good to do every day, regardless of what season it is or what the thermometer reads.  “Putting on sunscreen should be a part of everyone’s daily routine every day, not just in the summer or at the beach.”

James Crowell

Senior com major at Cabrini College. Technical Director for LOQation. On-Air personality on WYBF-FM. Past News editor for The Loquitur, 2011-12. Passion for videography, tech news & quantum mechanics. Follow me @JamesCrowellJr

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